By Design

Adaptive reuse preserves history as well as buildings

by Patricia Cove
Posted 2/9/23

Building sustainability is a huge topic within architectural and design circles these days.

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By Design

Adaptive reuse preserves history as well as buildings


Building sustainability is a huge topic within architectural and design circles these days. We are seeing critical signs that, if not addressed imminently, our existing habits will create serious and irreversible damage to our planet. Architects are not immune to this reality, and are paying close attention to design features that can be incorporated into new buildings specifically to address sustainability.  

These include solar panels for carbon-free energy; building materials made of organic compounds; reuse of existing building parts and more environmentally friendly methods of waste management, to name a few. 

On top of all that is a new appreciation of the fact that reusing existing structures, rather than tearing them down and starting over, is perhaps the most sustainable thing our construction industry can possibly do. 

For the most part, buildings built during the 19th and 20th centuries – before the arrival of plastics, synthetics, and laminates – incorporated natural materials like wood, plaster, brick, and stone.  

Most, however, were designed for a particular social, political, and economic period that renders them obsolete today. And it is the rare home buyer, architect, or developer that has the ability, or even the desire, to transform one of these structures into a state-of-the-art home that is designed for the way we live today.

Let’s face it: it’s much less work to just knock down an old building and replace it with a new, cookie-cutter structure, with a cookie-cutter kitchen. And when you don’t have to build walls, there is no point in designing living spaces…….but I digress.

A few years back, I  was honored with a design commission that, to this day, is one of my firm’s project highlights. A sizable carriage house located on an estate in Chestnut Hill had been sold off. It could have been easily demolished to make way for a brand new home. Instead, the new owners decided to renovate the entire interior. We were selected to bring that project to fruition.

Chestnut Hill is lucky to still have many of these historic structures left. Most of them still sport their original doors, floors, fenestration, and trims. This particular carriage house still had its original features, including tin ceilings, mahogany beams throughout, even the horse stalls remained. And amazingly enough, the structure itself was in wonderful condition.

From an architectural and design perspective, one of our first tasks was to figure out how to design an interior that preserved, and repurposed, these irreplaceable historic design elements. 

The tack room, with its intricate tin ceiling, molding, and symmetrical floor to ceiling fenestration became the primary bedroom suite. The kitchen was designed within the space that originally housed the horses, with one of the horse stalls becoming an office and computer station replete with the original rolling gate.

But to this day, one of the most memorable features was a stone lintel that we found buried in the dirt floor of the basement, which read “Happiness Lingers by the Fireside.”   After much research, we could not determine the origin of this lintel. But we knew for sure that it had to be incorporated in the renovation.  Today, it is proudly displayed above a fireplace, within the space originally used to house the carriages.

Historic structures like this one are not just critical components of our historic districts. They are also tangible memorials to the way that generations of people in our cities and towns once lived. Taken together, they provide the character that makes us all want to live here. And they cannot be replicated with new construction. 

So while preserving and reusing these old structures is the best way to be sustainable in today’s building industry, it also happens to be a great way to sustain and preserve our collective history. 

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and serves as Vice President for Preservation for the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.